Sydney Opera House is one of a select few World Heritage buildings to achieve green certification. His name synonymous with 20th century design, the building’s architect Jørn Utzon was ahead of his time with a philosophy, which today is understood as ‘sustainable design’.

Utzon envisioned an urban sculpture integrated into its natural environment – a principle that continues today with ongoing building upgrades that strive for energy efficiency. Join us on a tour to find out what this means and see subterranean parts of one of the world’s most iconic buildings, usually hidden from public view.

If you look closely, Utzon’s graceful design reflects the natural forms of the harbour on which it sits. The tiles of the Opera House, like the ripples of surrounding water, catch light so the building glows in the sun and glistens gently at night. Its colours mirror rock formations found on its headland.

But Utzon didn’t just translate nature literally, like other architects might. He was fascinated by the systems that underpin the environment. He saw beauty in nature’s perfect efficiency.

While a building normally has a 50 year design life, the Opera House was designed for 250. Whether you see shells, sails or shark fins (the architect has since revealed that the shape was in fact inspired by a segmented orange), the building’s graceful chevron-patterned wings are made up of almost 1 million of individual tiles.

A special bumpy surface under the glaze of each tile is the reason the tiles play so well with the sun. The tiles are largely self-cleaning – they get washed by the rain – but every so often, technicians scale the building and tap each one, to check if it needs replacing. Somewhere in the house archives is a map that identifies every tile.

Utzon’s revolutionary design tackled many technical challenges. The air conditioning system that cools the house uses sea water from the harbour instead of fresh water. The technology is sensitive to the time of day and needs of its inhabitants.

The outer shells are constructed separately to the actual theatres inside. One of the Opera House’s 6 indoor venues has recently undergone a lighting efficiency upgrade, which took 2 years. The 350 lights in the Concert Hall, the major venue that houses big acts and talks from the likes of Elton John and the late Nelson Mandela, have been upgraded to special LED lights. These complement the heritage of the room and can be controlled individually. The intuitive new lighting system has reduced power bills for the Concert Hall lighting by 75%.

Much less glamorous but nonetheless essential, is the building’s new waste management system. Located at the very bottom level of its underground section, is a two-level waste room that was recently upgraded from a teeny cupboard.

There is a compactor for general waste (caterers are charged extra to use it, to encourage recycling) and systems for glass, cardboard, foam, plastics, organics and ewaste. There are 8 waste systems in total and OzHarvest rescues any quality excess food. This new arrangement has pulled waste reduction up from 20% to 65% between 2010 and 2017 and the Opera House is aiming to divert 85% of all waste from landfill by 2030.

‘In July 2015, the Opera House was awarded a 4 Star Green Star Performance rating for building operational performance from the Green Building Council of Australia. Our goal is to attain a 5 star rating by July 2018.’ said Bob Moffat, Building Strategy and Sustainability Manager. ‘One of our key principles is to ensure that knowledge of proper heritage conservation is continued into the future.’

Although Utzon was forced to leave his labour of love half-complete, his son Jan makes regular visits to ensure proper conservation happens according to his father’s design principles. Sustainability is in the building’s DNA, in its design and building materials and in the way it continues to maintain a cultural conversation with the people of its city.

John Olsen's Opera House mural (2008). This striking artwork usually remains hidden behind a curtain as the sunlight might discolour it
John Olsen’s Opera House mural (2008). This striking artwork usually remains hidden behind a curtain as the sunlight might discolour it


This tour was organised by the Opera House in partnership with Airbnb. The idea is to take inspiration from this iconic green house to make changes in your own.

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